by Julie HaleApril, 2005
Best selections for reading groups
By Chris Abani
A Today Book Club selection, Chris Abani's debut novel Graceland tells the hypnotic story of a young boy coming of age in Nigeria, a country characterized by violence, poverty and political unrest. Set in the 1970s and '80s, the book recounts the adventures of protagonist Elvis Oke, who likes to impersonate his famous namesake and dreams of one day immigrating to America. The book moves back and forth between Elvis' childhood, during which his mother dies of cancer, and his teenage years in a Lago ghetto, where he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the condition of his homeland. A constant factor in Elvis' life is his hostile father an irredeemable alcoholic who beats him. With his close friend Redemption, Elvis nurses the hope of leaving Nigeria. But the difficulties of daily survival lead him into a life of crime, and he is soon involved in Lago's dark underworld, where he meets a remarkable cast of characters, including the unforgettable King of Beggars. Recipes from Elvis' dead mother, as well as excerpts from her diary, crop up periodically in the narrative, lending it a special authenticity. The novel is vivid and immediate, offering readers a unique portrait of Nigeria, where the native culture struggles to hold its own despite the inevitable encroachment of the West. This is a masterful debut from Abani.
A reading group guide is available in print and online.
The Art of Mending
By Elizabeth Berg
In The Art of Mending, best-selling author Elizabeth Berg presents a fascinating domestic drama that is filled with tension, wisdom and the kind of priceless insight that seems to come from first-hand experience. In her mid-50s, Laura Bartone is a talented quilt maker, contentedly married and a mother of two. The tranquility of her days is disrupted when her sister Caroline, encouraged by a therapist, reveals troubling information about their parents. According to Caroline, she was abused, both physically and verbally, by their mother. But is she telling the truth? Caroline is the family's wayward member, and she has a tendency to over-dramatize events. Yet she is clearly troubled by the past, and her version of what transpired during their childhood transforms Laura's own perceptions of those years. Added to this potent emotional mix is the death of their father from a stroke. How Laura copes with these midlife revelations makes for a smart, sympathetic narrative. Berg, whose novel Open House was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000, knows how to write about delicate subjects and construct a poignant plot without succumbing to melodrama. Filled with convincing detail and true-to-life dialogue, her latest is a powerful story about forgiveness, healing and family.
A reading group guide is included in the book.
By Brad Land
Goat, a searing memoir from Brad Land, explores the brutality that is all too often a part of fraternity initiations at colleges around the county. The author 19 years old at the time of the narrative is no stranger to violence. Prior to entering college, he picked up a pair of hitchhikers who proceeded to kidnap, beat and rob him. To make Land's nightmare even worse, he got no compassion from the police, who seemed to believe he was somehow responsible for the episode. Still coming to terms with the incident as he joins his younger brother Brett at Clemson University, Land is ill-prepared to cope with the pressures of pledging Kappa Sigma, the group to which his brother already belongs. Yet he decides to go through with the initiation in the hope that entering a fraternity will help him fit in on campus and recover from his trauma. In the end, the bullying and harassment Land encounters as a goat, or new pledge, is more than he can endure. When a fellow pledge dies of a heart attack after a particularly severe bout of hazing, Land knows it's time to move on. This is an honest, unflinching memoir, as well as a revealing look at college life. The difficulties of decision-making and the stress of dealing with peer pressure are sure to resonate with younger readers. Land also presents a sensitive and striking account of his troubled relationship with his brother.
A reading group guide is available online.